The Poems

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The Poems Poetry, Art, and Imagination A close examination of Emily Dickinson's letters and poems reveals many of her ideas, however brief, about poetry and on art in general, although most of her comments on art seem to apply chiefly to poetry. Many of her poems about poetic art are cast in allegorical terms that require guesswork and parallels from other of her poems for their interpretation. Although we are mostly concerned with the meaning and value of these poems, it is interesting and usef
  The Poems Poetry, Art, and Imagination A close examination of Emily Dickinson's letters and poems reveals many of her ideas,however brief, about poetry and on art in general, although most of her comments on artseem to apply chiefly to poetry. Many of her poems about poetic art are cast in allegoricalterms that require guesswork and parallels from other of her poems for their interpretation. Although we are mostly concerned with the meaning and value of these poems, it is interesting and useful to note that the views which they express aboutaesthetics can fit into many significant theories about literature. For example, if one usesM. H. Abrams's convenient four-fold division of theories of literature: imitative (the poetre-creates reality); expressive (the poet expresses his inner feelings); pragmatic or affective (the poet seeks to move his audience); objective (the poet tries to construct self-contained works of art) — one finds comments and poems by Emily Dickinson thatsupport all of these theories. She sees poems as artifacts giving permanence to the fadingworld and the mortal poet. She sees the poet achieving relief, personal identity, andcommunication through poetry. She sees the poet as a seer, yet she despairs of the poet's power to capture the final mysteries. She sees poetry as being able to open new visionsand the heart of its hearers to perspectives and ideas which they otherwise miss. Shedistinguishes between the false and the genuine in poetry, and she chides herself for sometimes failing to make the distinction in her own work. Perhaps her chief emphasis ison the poet's building a world and gaining relief from his expressions, but it is easiest todiscuss her relevant poems by moving from those treating the poet's relationship toaudience and world to those treating the poet's inner world.A number of Emily Dickinson's poems about poetry relating the poet to an audience probably have their genesis in her own frustrations and uncertainties about the publication of her own work. This is my letter to the World (441), written about 1862,the year of Emily Dickinson's greatest productivity, looks forward to the destiny of her  poems after her death. The world that never wrote to her is her whole potential audience,  or perhaps centrally its literary guardians, who will not recognize her talent or aspirations. She gives nature credit for her art and material in a half-apologetic manner,as if she were merely the carrier of nature's message. The fact that this message iscommitted to people who will come after her transfers the precariousness of her achievement to its future observers, as if they were somehow responsible for its neglectwhile she was alive. The plea that she be judged tenderly for nature's sake combines aninsistence on imitation of nature as the basis of her art with a special plea for tendernesstowards her own fragility or sensitivity; but poetry should be judged by how well the poetachieves his or her intention and not by the poem alone, as Emily Dickinson surely knew.This particular poem's generalization about her isolation — and its apologetic tone — tend towards the sentimental, but one can detect some desperation underneath thesoftness. If I shouldn't be alive (182), an earlier poem than This is my letter, is a firmer andmore powerful statement of a similar idea, thematically richer and with a different twist.Here, the poet-speaker anticipates being cut off from the splendid presence of nature bydeath. The time of robins is the spring, a season of joyous rebirth, and the robin-as-singer is a fellow poet. The robin's red cravat is a witty, half-personifying touch, giving the birdsomething of that nervy artifice that sustained Dickinson. The memorial crumb serves toremind us of the poet's own slim spiritual nourishment by those who might haverecognized and sustained her, as well as of the small needs of robins. Although thesecond stanza continues the conditional mood, it moves more decisively into the timewhen the poet will be dead; hence, it anticipates those brilliant later poems in whichEmily Dickinson's speaker is dying or speaks from beyond the grave. The speaker's beingfast asleep combines a note of relief with sadness at the loss of all feeling, leaving astriking shock effect for the climactic last two lines. If she is fast asleep, her efforts tospeak through that sleep show the spirit at war with death — rebellious against the arrestof the voice with which she brought nature to expression and drew close to it. The imageof the granite lip combines the sense of body as mere earth with body as the energy of life. Possibly, granite also suggests the potential power of her expression or even thestrength of her unrecognized poems. The parallels to other Emily Dickinson poems aboutrobins as poets, effortful expression as poetry, and poetry as a challenge to death supportthis interpretation. The consistency, rich suggestiveness, and emotional complexity of this poem mark it as a superior effort in what may, on a first reading, seem to be merely acasual vein. Essential Oils — are wrung' (675) is an equally personal but more allegorical commenton poems as a personal challenge to death. It is the same length as This is my letter and If I shouldn't be alive, but its highly compressed images and action make it a richer  poem. The central symbol here is attar (perfume) of roses, expanded to refer to someundefined essence of rose that will lie in a lady's drawer after her death. Surely this imagerepresents Emily Dickinson's poems accumulating in her drawers, as they quite literallydid, and finding an audience after her death, as they fortunately did. The wringing of therose — expressed means pressed out or squeezed — combines the creative force of nature as represented by the sun, with the special suffering that sensitive and artistic soulsundergo. The first stanza emphasizes creative suffering, and the second stanza  emphasizes its marvelous result, but both stanzas combine the sense of suffering andcreation. The general rose may represent ordinary nature or ordinary humanity, or  perhaps merely the idea of natural beauty as opposed to its essence. The marvelousgenerality of this reference leads us gently but firmly from the attar of roses as anallegorical symbol to all beauty as a symbol of accomplishment. The poem is chieflyallegorical, therefore, but this transition and the stress on the dead lady give it a strangecombination of allegorical mystery and concrete reality. The reference to decay remindsus of the physical fate of all things natural — that is, here she evokes a decay challenged by art. The essence of roses — the art as poetry that the lady has created out of naturethrough effort and suffering — makes nature bloom again, or live even more vividly, for those who read the poems. The lady lying in ceaseless rosemary may, at first, suggest acontrast between her dead body and the nature that continues around her, but when werecall that rosemary is the flower of remembrance and was often placed in coffins( There's rosemary, that's for remembrance — pray you, love, remember, saysShakespeare's Ophelia, suggesting even more connotations for Emily Dickinson's line),we may see this phrase as suggesting a special immortality for the lady poet. Althoughthe stress here is on creation through suffering, an aura of triumph and assurance permeates the poem. The Poems Poetry, Art, and Imagination I died for Beauty — but was scarce (449) should remind us that Emily Dickinson saidthat John Keats was one of her favorite poets, and it is likely that the poem is partly asimplification and variation on the theme, or at least echoes the conclusion, of his Odeon a Grecian Urn : Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all / Ye know on earth, and allye need to know. The poem's speaker looks back from death to life and laments thecessation of speech — quite probably representing poetic communication. Here,however, rather than our finding a wistful, desperate, or self-assured struggle for  posthumous expression, we discover a dignified and almost peaceful resignation. Theemphasis here on beauty, truth, and lips correlates to themes about poetry elsewhere inEmily Dickinson, just as the covering up of names on tombstones correlates to her concerns about surviving because of the immortality of her poems. The strangely abruptuse of adjusted for the dead suggests a struggle against and a resignation to death. Themutual tenderness of the two buried figures shows lonely souls longing for company, andthe use of failed for the more normal died suggests that the defeat of their art andthought contributed to their deaths, which we are to see as sacrifices. These terms alsoreflect Emily Dickinson's sense that the novel authenticity of her poems kept people fromappreciating them. The mind-teasing problem of equating truth and beauty is perhaps asgreat in Emily Dickinson's poetry as it is in Keats's poem. One simple interpretationwould be that accuracy, penetration, and ordering of vision, at least for the artist, create beauty, and that such efforts are painful almost to the point of self-sacrifice. The kinsmenin the last stanza seem comfortable and cheered by each other, though still separated, butthe stilling of their lips by moss and the covering of their names suggest EmilyDickinson's feelings that her struggles for beauty and truth were unavailing in their   accessibility — if not in their quality. Nevertheless, the resignation of the poem maintainsa fine dignity, and the poem as a whole creates a charming variation on EmilyDickinson's treatments of voices from beyond death and of survival through poetry. Of course, this poem need not be interpreted as a comment on Emily Dickinson's situation asa poet. One can read it merely as a fantasy about the light which death throws on the lifestruggles of sensitive souls and on the question of their rewards for their struggles, butcorrelation with other poems supports our interpretation and enriches the suggestivenessof the details. Publication — is the Auction (709) is Emily Dickinson's best-known statement of her feelings about publication, but the poem should be read as a partial and complicatedversion of her attitudes. The unusual stress on publication as auction (rather than meresale) may reflect resentment that poets must compete by adjusting their gifts and vision to public taste to earn profitable attention. Poverty would justify such a shaping of skills for the market, but that would strain the poet's integrity. This interpretation, however, may beexcessively biographical because of its stress on Emily Dickinson's need for artisticindependence, but it is also possible that she was chiefly rationalizing her fear of seekinga public and attributing a white innocence to the seclusion which her fears compelled, or it may be that she is only emphasizing the unworldly purity of art. The poet's garretstands for a worldly poverty which she never experienced, but it does accuratelysymbolize her isolation. The idea of not investing purity continues the economicmetaphor and gives the poem something of a snobbish tone. The two hims of the thirdstanza may refer to God and the poet or they may refer to the poet in two guises — as aninspired person and as a craftsman. (It is possible that the poet here is analogous to God becoming man.) The last six lines, switching to a scornful second person, suggest that the poet as human spirit is even more precious than the beauty of nature or the words of Godand that reducing his words to a commercial level is blasphemy. The insistent andsomewhat wooden trochaic rhythm of the poem enhances and enriches its scorn anddetermination, but it also communicates some uncertainty about the viewpoint, as if Emily Dickinson were protesting too much. Nevertheless, the curiously mixed diction of the poem, combining commercial, religious, and aesthetic terms gives dignified pride toits anger.
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